TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
An hour and change into Pompeii, there's a volcano. You'd think there might have been a volcano throughout — you'd think that the folks inhabiting the ill-fated Italian village would have been dealing with the infamous volcano for the full 110 minutes. After all, volcano movies have worked before. Volcano, for instance. And the other one. But for some reason, Pompeii feels the need to stuff its first three quarters with coliseum battles, Ancient Rome politics, unlikely friendships, and a love story. But we don’t care. We can't care. None of it warrants our care. Where the hell is the volcano, already?
To answer that: it's off to the side — rumbling. Smoking. Occasionally spiking the neighboring community with geological fissures or architectural misgivings. Pretty much executing every trick picked up in Ominous Foreshadowing 101, but never joining the story. Not until Paul W.S. Anderson shouts, "Last call," hitting us with a final 20-odd minutes of unmitigated disaster (in a good way). If you've managed to maintain a waking pulse throughout the lecture in sawdust that is Pompeii's story, then you might actually have a good time with the closing sequence. It has everything you’d expect — everything you had been expecting! — and delivers it with gusto. Torpedoes of smoke running hordes of idiot villagers out of their homes and toward whatever safety the notion of forward has to offer. Long undeveloped characters rising to the occasion to rescue hapless princesses who thought it might be a good idea to set their vacation homes at the foot of a lava-spewing mountain. The whole ordeal is actually a lot of laughs. But it amounts to a dessert just barely worth the tasteless dinner we had to force down to get there.
TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
To get through the bulk of Pompeii, we recommend focusing all your attentions away from the effectively bland slave/gladiator/hero Kit Harington — sorry, Jon Snow (he's actually called a bastard at one point) — and onto his partner in crime: a scowling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — sorry, Mr. Eko (he and Snow actually trade valedictions by saying "I'll see you at another time, brother" at one point) — who warms up to his fellow prize fighter during their shared time in the klink, and delivers his moronic material with a sprinkle of flair. Keeping the working man down is Kiefer Sutherland — sorry, Jack Bauer — as an ostentatious Roman senator, doling out vainglory in Basil Fawlty-sized portions. When he's not spitting scowls at peasants, ol' JB is undermining the efforts of an earnest local governor Jared Harris — sorry, Lane Pryce (he actually calls someone a mad man at one point) — and his wife Carrie-Anne Moss — sorry, Katherine O'Connell from Vegas (joking! Trinity) — and finagling the douchiest marriage proposal ever toward their daughter Emily Browning — sorry, but I have no idea what she's from.
But questionable television references and some enjoyably daft performances by Eko and Jack can't really make up for the heft of mindless dullness that Pompeii passes off as its narrative... until the big showstopper.
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In truth, the last sequence is a gem. It's fun, inviting, and energizing, and might even call into question the possibility that Pompeii is all about how futile life, love, friendship, politics, and pride are when even the most egregiously complicated of plots can be taken out in the end by a sudden volcanic eruption. But you have to wade through that egregious complication to get there, and you shouldn't expect to have too much of a good time doing so.
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Say have you heard the one about the troubled family that forsakes the trials and tribulations of city life for a bucolic new life on a rustic farm out in the middle of nowhere? It’s never a good idea to move into a house when the previous residents of said farm vanished without a trace—and it’s still not a good idea here. Soon teenager Jess (Kristen Stewart) and her three-year-old brother begin seeing ominous apparitions invisible to everyone else. When those specters become violent Jess' sanity is questioned--a double jeopardy for the tormented teen. Stewart Jodie Foster’s endangered daughter in Panic Room is appropriately moody and plucky as the terrorized teen whom no one believes. Penelope Ann Miller and Dylan McDermott are both suitably dense as Mom and Dad with twins Evan and Theodore Turner suitably spooky as the wide-eyed baby brother who can see everything. X-Files regular William B. Davis sans cigarette drops in a couple of times as the local real-estate agent and a grizzled John Corbett plays a shotgun-toting farm hand who the family hires with surprisingly little hesitation. There’s only so much the actors can do with the material and they pretty much do it. Directors Danny and Oxide Pang veterans of such popular Asian scarefests as The Eye and Ab-normal Beauty know their way around a scare and The Messengers has some decent jolts along the way. Ultimately however the peskiest of all problems – the plot – tends to get in the way. As the story pieces fall into place the film itself tends to fall apart. In addition this is yet another horror film that has been given a box-office-friendlier PG-13 rating (in the February issue of Fangoria co-star Corbett makes his displeasure known about this issue). This is the Pang brothers’ first stateside project and despite their stylistic touches there’s an unmistakable sense of selling out.
Little Timmy Jensen is your typical 10-year-old kid who's afraid of the big bad Boogeyman lurking in his closet. But one night when Timmy's dad comes in his room to do the usual "Nope nothing's there" routine he opens the closet-and right before Timmy's eyes is immediately sucked in by some unknown malevolent force. That's got to screw with a kid's head. Now 15 years later Tim (Barry Watson) is indeed messed up inherently apprehensive of closets and the dust bunnies under the bed but trying to move on with his life. That is until his mother unexpectedly dies sending Tim back to the point of origin: his dilapidated childhood home in the sticks. He decides he'll spend one night in the house to get over his fears once and for all and accept the fact his dad just "left." Ah if it were only that easy.
When the entire film rests on the shoulders of the guy who played the oldest son on the WB's 7th Heaven you know you're not in for anything meaningful in the way of acting. But that's fine. Horror films of this nature aren't about good acting. They are about dumb folks walking into even dumber situations. Watson fulfills his duties as said hero nicely by a) looking fearfully at and inside a lot of closets and under a lot of beds and b) walking cautiously around empty houses. The rest of the unknown cast also do their best as the Boogeyman's victims and potential victims. They include Tory Mussett (The Matrix Reloaded) as Tim's cutesy girlfriend Emily Deschanel (The Alamo) as Tim's long-lost childhood sweetheart and Skye McCole Bartusiak (The Patriot) as a mysterious little girl who guides Tim in the right direction to defeating the Boogeyman. Clever girl.
OK it's sort of understandable how Boogeyman got made. The film's premise has a built-in scare factor that's tapped into our childhood fears of the darkened closet. Yet once you get past this initial idea there just has to be more substance than Boogeyman provides. Director Stephen T. Kay (Get Carter) goes through all the right motions setting up the camera to make it look as if the Boogeyman is lurking everywhere you turn. But it's a very very long buildup to the climax. After about the 1 000th close-up shot of a closet door you're ready to jump onscreen and churn up some good scares yourself. By the time the anticlimactic showdown actually happens you already have your foot out the door just thankful it's coming to an end.